What’s Next: Excerpts from the Introduction

Enter an art studio and you have crossed the threshold from ordinary life with its pesky distractions, into an enchanted zone where artists shed the encumbrances of necessity, liberate their creativity, and cultivate imaginative prospects….except that many contemporary art studios seem more like danger zones than havens where revelations are being envisioned. Although environmental consciousness is making significant inroads into construction, automobile design, food production, waste management, and many other sectors of society, it has been slow to infiltrate artists’ classrooms and studios. How would you answer the following questions? Do you trust your art mediums? Would you eat them?

Artistic interactions carried minimal consequence in primeval times when cave dwellers painted with earth (pigment), saliva (solvent), and animal fat (binder). Unlike these biodegradable substances, the ingredients listed on labels of many manufactured paints, for example, portend ominous environmental outcomes. They are manufactured out of agglomerates, synthetic alkyd resins, biocides, coalescent solvents, defoamer additives, dispersants, polymerization reactions, thixotropic agents and surfactants. While these concoctions are selected to give paint such desirable qualities as luminosity, stability, and affordability, they often impose undesirable health risks. ‘Hazcom’ warnings posted in studios are often accompanied by physical evidence of dangers: eye and hand protective gear, ventilation equipment, chemical storage, dangerous waste disposal units, emergency eyewash equipment, first aid kits, chemical spill kits, fire extinguishers, etc. The following signs posted in some art studios announce these hazards.

Art Studio hazard signs

This extensive inventory of protective gear and treatments is still inadequate for dealing with risks generated in many art studios. Artists may be protected by ventilation systems, but these systems merely transfer offending gases from interiors to exteriors. Likewise, toxic wastes, even those that are disposed of in compliance with safety protocols, are merely relocated from the studio to municipal waste facilities. Squirrels, blue jays, mushrooms, pine trees, and insects do not have gear to protect them from exposure to harmful substances. They are victims of artistic creativity whenever studio practice neglects environmental protections.

The contradiction between art’s esteem as a cultural beacon, and its disregard for a cultural challenge that defines the current era introduces the imperative to replace polluting, wasteful, and depleting material interactions with those that are environmentally beneficial, or at least harmless. Comparable material calls for sweeping material change constitute an emerging philosophy, referred to as New Materialism. Works of art that are materially and conceptually allied with the environmental mandates of New Materialism were being created by an international roster of artists.

This book received the title, What’s Next? to highlight the fact that today’s artists confront the age-old quandary of choosing between conformity and innovation. Conformists reinforce existing cultural norms. Innovators introduce abnormal alternatives. In art, these norms refer to style, theme, format, medium, and tools. Because the tools and mediums that typically line the shelves or art studios are manufactured with little regard for their environmental impact, using them perpetuates the environmental disregard that accompanies consumer materialism. It requires a non-conformist to assert that every material choice by an artist is implicated in humanity’s impact upon the planet’s soils, waters, air, and life forms. These innovative artists locate life affirming material choices at the top of their agendas. This book honors the many artists whose fertile imaginations are seeding this Eco Material commons, and offering a credible answer to the question, What’s next?

By paying tribute to matter, materiality, and materialization, Eco Material artworks attend to the urgency of mounting environmental afflictions. These bold art initiatives reacquaint the public with the lapsed wonders of weight, texture, moisture, temperature, fragility, suppleness, elasticity, bulge, hollow, contour, and a host of other physical properties that are being neglected in favor of data, simulations, and digital transmissions, as well as being subjected to the casual disregard the surrounds mass produced commodities. While such fundamental qualities of materials have been accounting for life on Earth for the past 3.5 billion years, currently they are accounting for extinctions, smog, pollution, industrial wastes, water shortages, radioactive waste, oil spills, and an alarming litany of other planetary perils. The creative explorations among Eco Material artists present materiality as a strategy to convert society’s environmental neglect into responsible stewardship.

Eco Materialism envisions What’s next? for humans in the 21st century in terms of respectful interactions with the tangible and measurable conditions of Earth systems. Along with a recovery of wonder, Eco Materialists seek ways to regain kinship between the physicality of human bodies with the physicality of the planet. Such accord was relinquished when industry and commerce began providing the means to be sheltered, clothed, entertained, and fed. These modern conveniences replaced personal connections with life-sustaining resources with mechanical and automated processes. People could survive without encountering plants with their roots still in the ground, animals grazing and birthing, insects pollinating fruit, and wool growing on sheep. As a result, the stuff of everyday life lost its connection to the substances and processes inherent to the planet. Instead it reflects human designs and technologies. By the time most items enter peoples’ lives; the resources assembled to create them have been manipulated, dissected, and reconfigured out of recognition. Eco Material artists seek ways to reverse the loss of sensory enrichment and rapport with our planetary home.

By asserting the material basis of its creative enterprises, Eco Material artists are reasserting art’s time-honored role as an era’s exemplar of material interactions. They are reacquainting the public with the lapsed wonders of weight, texture, moisture, temperature, fragility, suppleness, elasticity, bulge, hollow, contour, and a host of other physical properties that belong to Earthly matter. But Eco Material works of art are not merely explorations of physicality. Their materiality is elevated by the context of art whereby it acquires conceptual, pragmatic, and ethical significance. As such, Eco Material art exceeds reconnection with physical matter. It is also a catalyst for cultural transformation.

Despite the growing fear of pandemics, famine, extinction, water shortages, social injustice, and war, Eco Materialists’ faith in positive change propels their valiant attempts to ensure that humanity’s fate is not a fatality. Some accomplish this by drawing attention to the losses that accompany recent gains in speed, power, comfort, variety, and convenience. Others actively involve citizens with the water they drink, the air they breathe, the food they consume, the fibers in their clothing, the minerals in their tools, and the fuels they burn. Some reinstate opportunities for sensory appreciation that have been usurped by the current infatuation with disposable abundance and mediated experience.

Such timely initiatives replace the association of ‘materialism’ with consumerism and convenience, and secure it as an opportunity for participation and generosity. Ultimately, Eco Material artists respond to ‘what’s next?’ by offering hope.